The Westside-system of lifting has had a huge influence on the training of athletes, for almost any sport imaginable, from football to basketball to soccer to field hockey. And rightfully so. What could be bad about a system that focuses on constant progression, common weak points for athletes (posterior chain and upper back, for starters) and all degrees of muscular tension, from speed-strength to max strength?
But, there is one major issue that arises when the Westside system has a major influence on a training system that is athletically based. And that issue is exercise selection. Or to be even more specific, the constant changing of exercises.
The Westside system is geared towards advanced lifters. Besides being strong as hell, advanced lifters have extremely polished and precise nervous systems. Basically, they have squatted and benched so much that they are masters at those specific movements.
That's why they can go through special cycles where they use special exercises. These movements are similar to squatting or benching without actually being a true squat or bench press. They target certain weak points the lifter may have.
And then when the lifter comes back to his squat or bench to see how much the special exercises have helped, they usually find that it did help, and their squat or bench increased. And, once again, the main reason they were able to increase their squat or bench was because of how "good" they already were at squatting or benching. This is what us training nerds would refer to as "intermuscular coordination."
The same cannot usually be said for an athlete. They haven't had the same amount of practice at the main movements, which are also the most important movements. If they were to go through a cycle of using special exercises, then went back to test out their squat or bench, they'd find that their strength in those movements had probably decreased, mainly because their nervous systems don't "remember" the movement as well as an advanced powerlifter and, basically, had forgotten how to do it.
That's why when anyone tries a new exercise, they see huge gains almost immediately in it. Those first few weeks, they are basically seeing "learning" gains; that is, it's not that they're actually improving their strength that much, it's that they're learning how to fire their muscles together in a sequential pattern that makes them much more efficient at the movement.
And with athletes, us coaches need to get them stronger almost 100% of the time. We can't waste time, waiting for our athletes to learn or re-learn a new movement and not be actually getting any stronger. Sure, it might look good to Little Bobby's parents when he puts 50 lbs. on his box squat in 3 weeks, but you and me both know those aren't actual "strength" gains. Those are learning gains, specific to the box squat, and they aren't going to have much transference to whatever sport it is that Bobby plays. All in all, it's not going to do much for Bobby, the athlete.
So, what is it I'm trying to say? First, You need to stop switching main exercises so often with your athletes. You need to pick a main movement you like, one that you feel has good carryover to sporting actions, and stick with it.
By staying with the same movement, we allow for intra-muscular strength gains in the form of gross neural efficiency, improved rate coding, an increase in the size of myofibrils and a consistent decrease in inhibitory mechanisms. (It should be noted that by changing main movements every 3-4 weeks, some of those things can still be attained but because the focus on improvement of "greasing the groove" of the actual movement is so great, it largely overshadows these other, very important, strength factors.)
What movements should you choose? I see no reason to not use the full squat and bench press as your money exercises (unless of course injuries prevent you from doing so). These two movements work a ton of muscle at a time, plus they allow for a lot of weight to be used. They can easily be manipulated to focus on whatever you goal is, whether it is strength, hypertrophy or anything else. Also, they traditionally have terrific carryover to almost any sport.
Take the squat for example. A friend of mine and message board legend, Colin Chung (a.k.a. CoolColJ), has actually created a calculator that can take your full squat and bodyweight, and tell you your vertical jump.
Because the movements are similar between squatting and jumping, and because strength is so damn important in being able to throw your body high up in the air, the calculator is incredibly accurate. (It also takes into account your jumping efficiency i.e. how good you are at jumping. Someone who practices jumping is obviously going to be better at it than someone who doesn't. So, if the calculator says, based on your current strength levels, you should be jumping higher than you actually are, you know you would need to work on your actual skill of jumping.)
You can find the calculator on Kelly Baggett's website: http://www.higher-faster-sports.com/verticaljumpcalculator.html. And while I won't go into great detail as to why the vertical jump is important for almost all sports, it is widely regarded as an accurate test of power. And power and athleticism go together like lying and politicians. The better liar you are, the better politician you probably are. And the more powerful you are, the better athlete you probably are.
Now, the main argument I hear for changing main exercises is that going more than 3 weeks with a certain movement will burn the athlete out. My response? Stop training so freaking heavy all the time.
Besides the fact that cartilage degradation is intensity-dependent and you're probably asking for joint issues, constantly lifting loads +90% will burn your out. It's just too hard, systemically.
It's a myth that the best strength gains are found at above 90%. Based on my own experiences with myself, my clients and from talking to other coaches, we've all seen great strength gains come from staying almost entirely in the 80-90% zone.
This is huge for two reasons. One, athletes have more "juice" that can be used on training specifically for their sport. Basketball players can play more (like they actually need to!), football players can give better attention to sprinting and so on. Two, main movements never have to be changed. Burnout is never an issue, even though the squat and bench are staples, because intensity is kept at manageable levels, and that intensity, along with volume and frequency, are appropriately manipulated.
So what would a cycle look like with the intent of keeping the same main movement for an extended period of time? Here's one example:
Assistance and supplementary movements are still used. Feel free to choose your own exercises after your main lifts. Keep the focus on compound movements and exercises attending to possible muscular imbalances.
For lower body days, depending on the athlete's preparation, a uni-lateral movement, a hamstring-focused movement and some ab work following the squat is usually ideal. For uni-lateral and hamstring stuff, stick with 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps on each leg. Hit the abs heavy for a 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.
For upper body days, you can give them 5-10 minutes of "beach" time at the end of workouts for curls and lateral raises, but following the bench, hit a vertical press variant and inverted rows one day, then on the other day, follow the bench with chin-ups and a horizontal pull variant. Finishing up with some face pulls or some other "scap retraction" exercise is almost always a good idea too.
There are tons of great ideas and principles that we can use from the Westside system in the training of athletes, but constantly changing main exercises is definitely one we'd be better off leaving to the advanced powerlifter.
[NOTE: Although powerlifters absolutely are athletes, the term "athlete" and "powerlifter" are used separately in this article to differentiate between someone whose sport is based on the actual act of lifting, and all other participants of a sport, where weights serve as a "general, prepatory" means.]
Alex Maroko is a currently a Kinesiology major at Michigan State University, and a former Division II college basketball players. Besides training himself and his clients, Alex likes to read, discuss and think about anything pertaining to training. At this point, it is borderline obsessive. You can find out more about him at www.alexmaroko.blogspot.com or his first product, geared towards basketball players, at www.effectiveballhandling.com.